The Case Against Drafting Johnny Football Early
by David Seigerman
Feb 18, 2014 4:33 PM EST
It used to be that people covering the NFL Draft would wait until draft day to be wrong. Back in the day, you'd tune in to ESPN's coverage to hear no less an authority than Chris Mortensen opine, "I think Norv Turner's got his Troy Aikman." This evaluation came minutes after the Redskins drafted Heath Shuler. Nowadays, predictions appear ever earlier, mock drafts coming out before the draft order even takes shape, much the way Christmas decorations now spring up everywhere the day after Halloween. Apparently, there's an appetite out there for inaccuracy. And most guesses made five months early -- whether it's about the weather or whether a team will draft a particular player -- are going to be wrong. Way wrong. Like Heath Shuler wrong. This year's poster child for mockable draft predictions is the face of college football itself, Johnny Manziel. Everywhere you look, you see Manziel's name tied to one team or another picking in the top 5. One mock has him going to Jacksonville at No. 3, another has him going to Cleveland at No. 4 or Oakland at No. 5. Someone surely has him going No. 1 overall to Houston, and almost no one has him falling past Minnesota at No. 8. The one thread common to all of these mocks? They're all wrong. Johnny Manziel is not a top-10 draft pick. Is he one of the 10 best players in college football? Absolutely. If you were looking for a quarterback to run your college offense and win you a college game against a college defense, Johnny Football is your guy. He's a Saturday afternoon all-timer. Sundays are a different story. And Manziel is not one of the 10 best NFL prospects in the 2014 draft. I'm not even sure he's one of the five best quarterback prospects available. Let me make a quick distinction here. I'm not saying that some QB-needy franchise won't take him in the top 10. Multiple teams in various stages of desperation tends to wreak havoc on traditional laws of supply and demand. That's when Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder become top-12 picks. Being picked third didn't make Akili Smith a top-3 prospect. So the debate shouldn't focus on whether some team picking in the top 10 is going to reach for Manziel; it's whether or not he's worth a top-5 or top-10 pick. (Spoiler alert: He's not.) Pundits across the mockosphere are convincing themselves that he's the second coming of Russell Wilson. Anyone making that comparison is doing it almost exclusively on the merits of measurables. When his height and weight are announced at the Combine, it's entirely reasonable to expect that we'll hear Manziel is roughly the same size (5-foot-11) and weight (206) as Wilson. But that doesn't make them similar quarterbacks any more than being born the same year as Cindy Crawford makes me a supermodel. Wilson's immediate success as an undersized quarterback does not make him a trailblazer for short quarterbacks everywhere. Rather, Wilson reinforces that opportunity exists for special quarterbacks, no matter what their stature. Wilson came out of college having started 50 straight games, a seasoned quarterback who threw nearly 1,500 passes for more than 11,700 yards. He knew how to take care of the football when he threw it (he went an FBS-record 379 passes without an interception) and was just as capable running it (he had more carries in college than Eddie Lacy). He was a 23-year-old with two summers' experience riding the bus in Class A baseball under his belt. And then despite his talents, and despite his maturity, Wilson didn't get picked until the third round. He was drafted by Pete Carroll with an eye toward giving him a chance to compete, not with a plan of supplanting a veteran the Seahawks had shelled out big free agent money for. Even after he had won the starting job, Wilson wasn't asked to do too much too soon. As rookie, he attempted 24.6 passes per game. That ranked 40th in a league of 32 teams. Wilson may not have been blessed with prototype size, but he couldn't have dreamed of a better situation. Killer defense. Solid offensive line. A dominant running game. If ever a team could withstand a rookie's learning curve, it's these Seahawks. Anyone who looks at what Wilson has done and projects the same for Manziel is dreaming -- and that's not entirely Manziel's fault. Any quarterback who is taken by Jacksonville or Oakland or Minnesota is set up to struggle. But then there's the other undeniable truth about Manziel. He may be Wilson's size, but he doesn't measure up as a quarterback. To be fair, Manziel developed so much as a passer this season. He completed throws downfield with far more consistency (having a bail-out receiver like Mike Evans catching every 50-50 heave certainly didn't hurt). He stayed at home more, reading through his progressions from the pocket and making good decisions. All of that bodes well for Manziel as a quarterback-in-the-making. But he's still more project than prospect, and no one desperate enough to take him in the top 10 has the luxury of patience. Especially not with a quarterback. Most of all, Manziel has to learn as a 21-year-old should-be redshirt junior what Robert Griffin III is still coming to terms with two seasons into his professional career -- the NFL is not a safe place for run-around quarterbacks. Sure, it's less dangerous for Cam Newton; he's 6-5, 245. And it's less dangerous for Colin Kaepernick (6-4, 230), even Terrelle Pryor (6-4, 233). You don't hear Manziel being compared to those guys. And Manziel isn't merely mobile; he's reckless. It's one thing to keep plays alive with your legs. It's another thing entirely to jeopardize keeping yourself alive. It may be breathtaking to the 12th Man at Texas A&M to see Manziel run up into traffic, bounce out, roll right, turn his back to the defense and reverse course, then launch a prayer to the opposite side of the field. But when Manziel tries that at the next level, he'll get his pass picked, his quarterback coach fired and, I'm afraid, himself killed. This is not hyperbole. Like everybody else, I can't take my eyes off Manziel when he plays. He's enthralling to watch, like an escape artist straight-jacketed underwater with a circling shark and a ticking clock. But just as I know that magician is going to escape, I fear that Manziel, one play, is not going to. Not that he'll suffer an injury any more severe than quarterbacks are subjected to all the time. It's just that he puts himself at risk more often than most quarterbacks, that he makes himself not only a defenseless player but an unprotectable one. And for that reason above all else -- a sense that this guy simply won't be able to stay on the field in the NFL -- I can't see why anyone would spend a high first-round pick on him. A third? Fine. Give him time to learn, to exorcise those instincts that tempt him to run when his first read is covered (the same thing Griffin is learning). Give him time with an NFL strength coach, time to mature. Don't minimize that last part. Manziel seems to be as much a high-wire act off the field as on. The Pete Carroll who saw leadership qualities in Wilson was the same coach who suggested that Mark Sanchez might not have been ready to turn pro as early as he did. Sanchez quickly proved that being the Jets quarterback and a magazine cover boy doesn't make you Joe Namath. Manziel is not Sanchez; he's a better passer already. But Sanchez wasn't a top-5 prospect, even though he went fifth overall. And neither is Manziel. Manziel isn't Sanchez and he isn't Wilson and he isn't Griffin, nor is he Doug Flutie or Tony Romo or Fran Tarkenton (this week alone, I've seen him compared to all). He sure as hell isn't Brett Favre, who entered the league as a 22-year-old gunslinger with four years as a starter on his resume -- and who didn't become Brett Favre until after he'd been drafted in the third round, sat a year and was traded. Perhaps the most valid comparison is to Michael Vick, whose similar approach to playing the position kept him from becoming the passer he had the potential to be. Manziel is a lot like Vick -- a strong-armed, strong-willed, too-willing-to-run, thrilling-to-watch accident-waiting-to-happen of a quarterback. That should be the comparison that ultimately convinces any NFL decision-maker to pass on him in the first round. They're not going to wind up with another Russell Wilson. But they sure could wind up with another Heath Shuler.